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Found in Transliteration

However awkward it may be, rendering Hebrew in English letters allowed generations of American Jews to pray in Hebrew without ever learning to read it

Jenna Weissman Joselit
February 22, 2023
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

Have you ever heard of the Hebrew Monotype Composing Machine? Me neither, at least not until a few days ago when I happened upon a reference to the device. Though its name initially put me in mind of the kind of contraption Ben Katchor might have invented, the Hebrew Monotype Composing Machine, it turned out, was a real artifact—so real, in fact, that its champions published a promotional booklet in 1927 in America to herald its many virtues.

According to the Specimen Book of Hebrew, Yiddish, English, Arabic & Greek Type Faces, it was now possible, thanks to the marvelous Hebrew Monotype Composing Machine, “to set any matter in any combination of Semitic languages in one-tenth of the time that was formerly necessary for composing by hand.” A boon to “Publishers, Universities, Learned Societies and all others interested in the production of the best in the art of Hebrew printing,” the machine not only saved time, it also enlarged the repertoire of Hebrew fonts, freeing publishers and readers alike from the “handicaps of antiquated methods” and equally antiquated styles of Hebrew lettering.

When the Specimen Book first saw the light of day, its objective was to recruit paying customers for its newfangled product. Nearly a century later, the now brittle text, whose pages I carefully turned at the Dorot Jewish Division of the New York Public Library, might be most profitably read as a visual salute to the plasticity of Hebrew. It held out the possibility that the ancient tongue might lend itself, and adapt, to the most up-to-date technological changes and more than hold its own as a modern language, even in America.

Did American Jews at the time take note and make that prospect their own? With the exception of a tiny band of devoted Hebraists, a cadre of Zionist-oriented rabbis, and a cohort of dedicated and dogged, if often stymied, Jewish educators, few did.

Back then and in the many decades that followed, most American Jews at the grassroots kept Hebrew at arm’s length, limiting their exposure to the pages of the prayer book. Hebrew, they believed, was the language of the sanctuary, not the street, the shop, or the dining room.

If that weren’t enough to distance American Jews from their ancestral tongue, transliteration—the process by which a foreign language, say, Hebrew, is rendered into English—sealed the deal: Wherever Hebrew prayers appeared on the page, transliteration was sure to follow.

Although statistics are hard to come by—were they ever assembled in the first place?—it’s probably no exaggeration to say that transliteration was how a hefty proportion of American Jews, especially those from Reform and Conservative households, learned enough Hebrew to be familiar with the sounds of the synagogue service. California Rabbi Harold Schulweis certainly thought so, giving rise to the quip that American Jews fell into three broad categories: the literate, the illiterate, and the transliterate.

Schulweis’ categories were as much visual as conceptual. Within the precincts of the non-Orthodox, American siddur, transliterated texts sat uncomfortably alongside the Hebrew and English material, awkwardly hugging the bottom of the page. Position wasn’t the only off-kilter thing about it. Transliteration looked funny, too: gobbledygook in Latin characters. Neither Hebrew nor English, what manner of language was this?

As a further point of provocation, transliterated Hebrew didn’t sound much like Hebrew, either. Those who knew their aleph bet, much less their orthography, must have gnashed their teeth when they came upon the likes of “A-don o-lam a-sher mo-lach,” “Ein-ke-lo-he-noo,” and “Kol ’od ba-lay-vov, p’neemo …”

Given its manifold shortcomings, you have to wonder who first came up with the idea of deploying transliteration as a liturgical practice, especially since its origins were bound up with the academy and with scholarship. Consider the Jewish Encyclopedia, that vast compendium of knowledge. Published in 1906, it not only made frequent use of transliteration in its coverage of ancient Near East texts, but also devoted two full pages to explaining its “scheme”—the “rules” by which its pages rendered Hebrew as well as Aramaic and Arabic into English characters.

That’s all very well and good, but when did these rules and schemes catch on among the rest of us? Perhaps the migration of transliteration from the groves of academe into houses of worship was sparked by a letter published in the American Hebrew’s “complaint box” of 1895. In it, the writer advocated for the embrace of transliteration on the grounds that it enabled the “spirit of the Sacred Tongue [to be] most clearly seen by the intelligent, though unlearned reader.”

Or perhaps, and more likely still, its growing popularity might be attributed to the publication, more than 10 years later, in 1908, of the Hebrew Hymnal for School and Home, which was compiled and edited jointly by Mathilde Schechter and Lewis Isaacs, with a helping hand from Henrietta Szold. Widely advertised in the Anglo-Jewish press, the 67-page collection was touted as “just the book that has been wanted for some time. It is not too long, it confines itself to the best known Jewish hymns … and is clearly printed and moderate in price.”

Its “get-up,” as much as its selection of tunes, made the Hebrew Hymnal particularly attractive to the American Jewish public, “meet[ing] its approval.” For the very first time, or so it was proudly maintained, transliteration loomed large on the page, side by side with musical notations, Hebrew text, and an English translation. By making the melody and the lyrics accessible, explained its compilers, this volume “sounds the echo of joy and sorrow, in jubilation and wailing, in merry and plaintive, yes, heart-breaking tunes, [of] these Jewish folk-songs of the centuries gone by.”

Thanks to its newfound association with both song and Jewish tradition (all those “echoes”), transliteration now acquired a new lease on life—an added resonance—serving as an instrument by which to further a connection to history and ritual through the medium of sound. An emotional and acoustic crutch, the practice not only came in handy; it made for community, too.

Once heralded as a boon, it didn’t take long before transliteration migrated once again, this time from the hymnal to the siddur, where it was linked to those moments in the prayer service when the congregation—especially its female members, whose access to formal Hebrew training left a lot to be desired—sang out to God. Congregants of both genders may not have known, or cared much, about the difference between a chet and a chuf, nor recognized a Hebrew vowel when they saw one, but no matter. With transliteration as a guide, they could now give voice to the Sh’ma, belt out Adon Olam and Yigdal, and dutifully intone the Mourner’s Kaddish: “Yis-ga-dal v’yis-ka-dash sh’meh ra-bo …” Even “Hatikvah,” the Jewish national anthem, underwent transliteration.

Champions of Hebrew as both a living language and as the medium of prayer might stigmatize, and even ridicule, transliterated Hebrew as ersatz from start to finish, as a whopping admission of failure, and as demonstrable, audible proof of the vacuousness of American Jewry, whose members, even those who attended synagogue now and again, couldn’t be bothered to learn the language. They certainly had a point.

Then again, in reckoning with and seeking a way around the sobering realities of American Jewish life, transliteration’s advocates also had a point. The linguistic equivalent of having your cake and eating it, too, transliteration made it possible for legions of American Jews to experience Hebrew without having to learn it. Of a piece with so much else that was characteristic of the American Jewish experience, this practice similarly celebrated—and prioritized—emotion at the expense of literacy, feeling Jewish at the expense of cultural immersion.

Is it any wonder that so many American Jews gave it their blessing?

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.